We’ve just passed that time of year when the love-hate relationship that the charity sector has with politicians reaches its height. Party conference season is now over. Charities that don’t display political bones in their bodies feel the need to mount a series of fringe meetings, or spend thousands on an exhibition stand, or generally get the attention of politicians.
Months of planning go into party conferences, as panels for fringe meetings are recruited, venues are found and passes are obtained. Chief executives who never go near the Houses of Parliament feel the need to travel to the far-flung reaches of England to be seen at fringe meetings, usually full of a few party members and folk from other charities. This desperation is like Tiny Tim from Dickens's A Christmas Carol. If only we can show how right our cause is, how unique is our need, the hard-hearted politicians will relent and give us what we want, while we mouth platitudes such as "God bless politicians, every one".
The problem is that party conferences are a uniquely poor way to get your message across. MPs put party conferences way down on their list of how charities should spend money on lobbying. Many MPs don’t even go. Worse still, politicians aren’t in listening mode at conferences, but trying to get their message across to the party faithful and the waiting media.
But the love-hate relationship goes the other way too: some in the sector can’t really even decide if they want to court politicians. It’s too much like hard work being nice; we just want them to change their policies for us. This is the kind of relationship that happens only in fairy tales. Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory for Social Change, recently said in her Third Sector blog that she thought politicians should come looking to talk to charities. This is at the same time as her charity is lobbying for the return of National Lottery money that was used to fund the 2012 Olympics. No wonder that’s not going well. Perhaps if she just said "give us the money or the puppy gets it" that would work better.
At the heart of our problem is that we need politicians a lot more than they need us. Neither main party featured charities much in their recent election manifestos. The mood music from the Tories is not good, obsessing as they are about charity lobbying and chief executive salaries. Even the Labour Party has gone from being a real ally to forgetting we exist: like the kid at school who has found friends he thinks are more interesting. Recent government charity sector ministers don’t seem to have been particularly interested in finding out what charities want, instead insisting on telling us that social enterprises are wonderful and fundraising is nasty. At least under Labour the platitudes were positive.
If we want any of this to change, the sector needs to prove its worth. We need to show how much of society would fall apart without charities to hold them together. We need to limit the amount of time politicians spend angsting about private schools or campaigning or fundraising, and make them realise the difference that charities make in every constituency in the land. We need to change the narrative away from just seeing our weak spots, to seeing how much stronger we can be working in partnership with government. We need politicians to see charities as central to creating a just, equal and effective society. We need everyone, including politicians, to realise that "God bless charities, every one" is close to the truth of the role of charities in society today.
Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy